When to meddle and when to muck in

6th October 2006 at 01:00
Most headteachers teach some classes, even when the staffing position is such that they don't need to. Why is this? Are they saying, "This is how it's done?" Are they nervous about their credibility? Is it something they enjoy as an escape from the paperwork?

I was reminded of these questions when I learned something recently about the way First World War army officers were supposed to behave. In that war, soldiers spent a lot of time digging trenches - desperate work, especially in cold driving rain with deep mud underfoot. And while it was going on, officers were supposed to stand around looking important.

Unsurprisingly, many younger officers were uncomfortable with this, and started to get stuck in. Commanders, though, were disconcerted when they found out. Some ordered their officers to stop, on the grounds that labouring would diminish them in the eyes of their men. What these young officers had realised, though, was that when it came to the actual digging, their contribution as leaders had temporarily come to an end.

Dr Todd Stephens, who led a team of volunteers cleaning up homes in New Orleans after last year's floods, puts this very well in an article in the online DM Review*. "When people know where to go and are doing a good job at getting there, then the only thing leadership can do is mess it up. As a leader, you have selected the best resources, set the expectation of performance, motivated the group to a greater cause and spent time developing each team member; now, go find something to do."

That, surely, is the way that headteachers should see their own teaching.

They aren't doing it to demonstrate how good they are. It's important to say that, because some heads feel a bit guilty if they aren't brilliant in class. But that's not the point. It's perfectly possible to demonstrate good practice and sound professionalism without being awesomely inspirational, and you can argue that a head who has to work at being a good teacher, who isn't a natural, is more likely to understand what the job is really like. Neither can it be said that the teaching head is leading from the front, because there's a very real chance that they're actually trailing behind. Once in the classroom, after all, a head becomes part of a team led by someone else - a head of department or a subject leader.

No, once the teaching day is under way, a head's leadership contribution is already in the bank - in the form of expectations, motivation, coaching and professional development. Now it's time to go and just join in. And in their classroom work, our heads will, like those young officers, do some learning - about themselves, their colleagues, their children and, most of all, about the work done daily in the classroom. And everyone will be the better for it.

*'Leadership in a Natural Disaster' www.DMReview.com

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